There are few things more important for children to master than literacy: the skills of reading and writing that enable them to learn other subjects, participate politically, protect their health, and enter the labor market with promising prospects. Yet about 20 percent of the global adult population is illiterate, and in Latin America, two-thirds of children do not achieve the minimum levels of literacy expected for their age.
The question for educational policy is twofold. Can we improve our teaching and learning of languages in early grades so that fewer children fall behind? How can we help those children who despite our current efforts are failing to read at grade level?
Ministers of finance, concerned about the resources needed to help children struggling with literary will also ask where limited resources are best spent, improving learning for all or targeting resources to those falling behind.
Early interventions are predicated on the fact that they achieve greater gains than comparable remedial interventions later in life. However, we often don’t know what such programs would look like, what their benefits would be, and how much they would cost. In many situations, reaching valid conclusions is difficult: Measures of learning outcomes or the setting in which the effects of different interventions are studied are not strictly comparable.
Two Literacy Interventions in Colombia
The Inter-American Development Bank together with Fundación Luker conducted two literacy interventions in the same primary schools in Manizales, Colombia, a setting that allowed us to gather sound empirical evidence and get to the heart of these questions. We started with a remediation program designed to enhance literacy skills in about a quarter of third grade students in the schools, students who were struggling readers. Based on a phonics approach to reading, the program consisted of 40-minute structured tutorial sessions provided three times a week to small groups. The program lasted 16 weeks, cost $89 per student, and produced gains in literary of 27 learning points.
The second intervention, implemented independently at a later date in the same schools, focused on improving teachers’ pedagogical strategies, but starting earlier, in the first grade. It offered in-service professional development for teachers who received intense, in-person training for two weeks, followed by continuous, in-class coaching visits throughout the school year. Moreover, it incorporated the development and distribution of complementary teaching materials, including books for teachers, and workbooks and storybooks for students. It produced gains of literacy of 37 learning points at a cost of $36 per student.
If one considers progress in terms of an overall $100 dollar investment per student, the second intervention, implemented for younger students, was more than five times more cost effective than the first one, revealing the benefits of early literacy training. Its cost-effectiveness can also be seen in the fact that students who received it were 27% less likely to need remediation at the third-grade level. Many governments in the region face the challenge of having to tackle a pressing learning crisis in a context of tight fiscal constraints. Effective early interventions prevent learning gaps from forming in the first place and reduce the need for later remediation, though that should always remain an option for the smaller subset of students that still need it..